HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel rolls out as the streaming industry reconsiders … everything.
It’s just like old times at HBO — plenty of scheming, betrayal, blood-letting.
Oh! And they have that on screen too: House of the Dragon, better known as The Sequel to Game of Thrones That’s Really a Prequel But Whatever It Is, It’d Better Work, debuts this Sunday. I’ve seen the first episode and, without breaking any embargoes, I can tell you that it features at least one dragon.
But it’s the behind-the-scenes drama at HBO and Warner Brothers Discovery, the company that owns the programmer plus CNN and Warner Bros. studio, that has people in medialand chattering. What exactly is happening to some of the world’s most storied media brands? And for the rest of us, all of this matters, too: What’s going to happen to all the stuff we like to watch on our screens?
We got the newest chapter earlier this week, when HBOMax — the streaming service that includes HBO as well as a bunch of other programming — let go of 70 people. That’s 14 percent of its staff, and it’s the first of multiple waves of layoffs throughout Warner Brothers Discovery that sources tell me will extend through the fall. And it comes on the heels of several moves — like killing off CNN+ days after it launched, mothballing the finished Batgirl movie before ever showing it to the public, and pulling made-for-HBOMax movies like Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle and Anne Hathaway’s The Witches off HBOMax — that indicate the company formerly known as WarnerMedia, once one of the most powerful media companies on the globe, is now trying to shrink itself to survive.
It’s a nearly complete turnaround from the playbook WarnerMedia’s previous owners were using, and we can discuss the details in a minute. But the big picture is this: Remember the Netflix Chill I told you about earlier this year — Hollywood’s uneasy fear that the problems that brought Netflix to a halt would show up in the rest of the media world, too? That’s officially happening.
And it means that the endless stream of movies and shows we’ve gotten used to isn’t going to go on forever. Streaming isn’t going away — as much as some execs might like — but the endless budget that Big Media has been throwing at it does turn out to have an end after all. Case in point: Demimonde, a Big Deal sci-fi series from J.J. Abrams — the producer/director who brought you Lost and the latest round of Star Wars reboots and lots of other stuff you like and Hollywood values — was supposed to be an HBO show. But now it’s not because HBO doesn’t want to pay for its reported “mid-$200 million” budget.
Quick history lesson: The main idea behind AT&T’s acquisition of what was then-called Warner Media — first announced in 2016 but not finished until 2018 — was that the phone company could turn HBO into its own Netflix and that Wall Street would reward AT&T for owning its own Netflix. So in 2021, when it became clear that investors didn’t care about AT&T’s media foray, the company flipped a switch and dumped its entertainment assets to Discovery, the cable TV programmer best known for reality shows like 90 Day Fiancé.
But now Discovery has multiple problems. For starters, it has $53 million in debt, much of it taken on with the Warner deal. Which means instead of spending aggressively to take on Netflix and Disney, it has to look under couch cushions for change, and David Zaslav, the CEO of the newly combined company, has promised Wall Street he’ll find $3 billion in cost savings … somewhere.
But the bigger problem is one that everyone in streaming — including Netflix — is grappling with now: Wall Street no longer likes Netflix. Netflix’s stock, which got as high as $700 last fall, is now down 50 percent because Netflix’s 10-year record rocketship growth appears over: During the first six months of this year, it actually lost subscribers. So now Wall Street, which had encouraged media companies to adopt Netflix’s growth-first, profits-maybe-later strategy, wants them to change course. (One important exemption from this: Amazon and Apple, which are tech companies dabbling in media, so they can basically spend whatever they want on programming: See Amazon’s Rings Of Power — a gazillion-dollar Lord of the Rings prequel that is very much supposed to be Amazon’s Game of Thrones. Not coincidentally, it will debut a couple weeks after House of the Dragon.)
At Netflix, that means layoffs, an unprecedented move to add ads to a lower-priced tier of its service, and an end to ever-increasing content budgets.
And at Warner Brothers Discovery, it means cuts everywhere — jobs, first and foremost, but also expensive bets like CNN+, the streaming service that Discovery canceled just weeks after launch.
It also means Discovery is unwinding other projects undertaken by Warner’s previous management. Remember during the pandemic, when Warner put all of its movies on HBOMax the day they debuted in theaters — and then, post-ish pandemic, said that some movies would still stream right away but others would show up 45 days later? That’s gone: Zaslav has said that if Warner makes movies they should show up in movie theaters — and Elvis, which would already be streaming under the previous 45-day plan, is still not on HBOMax.
Just as big a deal, at least in the eyes of former Warner execs: Under Zaslav, the company is preparing to start selling HBOMax via Amazon again — undoing a deal the previous regime made to stop working with Amazon, which it viewed as a competitor that would ultimately undermine the company’s ability to sell directly to consumers.
The vitriol over this stuff between Warners’ new and old management is entertaining for professional media watchers like me. But it matters beyond industry gossip because it represents two very different ideas about how to run a media company: Discovery CEO David Zaslav and his team have gone out of their way to portray their predecessors, led by former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, as starry-eyed technologists who caught the streaming bug and couldn’t think about anything else. And former Warner people I’ve talked to think the Discovery guys (yup, mostly guys) only know how to merge, cut, and hope someone else buys them sooner than later, not how to grow a business for the long term.
The truth is probably a little bit of both. “We got to be a little crazy,” a former WarnerMedia executive concedes. “But we knew we weren’t going to do it forever. I do think it’s right to pull back a little now.”
Or, as HBO programming boss Casey Bloys diplomatically told me this week: “We’re at a time where [you have] the cable bundle, which is still a good business but is declining, and the streaming business, which is ascendant but people haven’t made much money on. So you’re trying to find a balance.”
And despite what you may have read or heard, HBO’s new owners aren’t radically shrinking HBO, says Bloys, the executive who brought you all the HBO shows you’ve liked for the last several years — and who not coincidentally recently renewed his contract there. “Our budget is going to continue to grow,” he said.
But Bloys — and everyone else managing businesses at Warner — is going to be asked to make less stuff and hope that the stuff he does make really breaks through — hence the increased stakes of House of the Dragon. HBO’s first attempt to build on its Game of Thrones success would be a big deal under any circumstances. But now? It’s going to be a really big deal, even as Bloys attempts to manage expectations.
And yes, Discovery plans to merge its streaming service with HBO Max sometime next year. Which means that at some point you’ll have the ability to subscribe to something that includes both House of the Dragon and Dr. Pimple Popper, a Discovery reality show that’s just what you think it’s about. You can turn up your nose at that pairing — or you can acknowledge that it’s a lot like TV used to be, when in order to subscribe to HBO, you also had to get a package of cable channels that were nothing like HBO. Streaming’s not going anywhere, but the cable TV model is going to stick around for a while longer, too.